On this day: Arthur Phillip was born

By Leila Berney | October 10, 2014

The man who founded Sydney was born 276 years ago today.

ARTHUR PHILLIP, BORN on 11 October, 1738 at a parish in London, England, came from humble beginnings before eventually succeeding as the first Governor of New South Wales.

The son of a language teacher of modest means, he would apprentice in the mercantile service at the age of 12 and later join the navy. Considered a ‘solid’ sailor, few would suspect that he’d be remembered for settling Australia’s largest city, Sydney.

Before any of this came about, however, Phillip worked for the navy on and off for 30 years or so, running farms in-between. In 1786 Phillip, aged 48, was appointed as Governor of the proposed penal colony of New South Wales. He had, by all accounts, earned himself a sturdy, if not particularly outstanding, reputation in the navy. His experience with farming, the navy and surveying was also seen as an advantage playing into his appointment to this role.

The First Fleet sailed on 13 May 1787, led by Phillip who captained HMS Sirius. The ships were filled with supplies, 772 convicts, and a small group of men to help him run the new colony. They reached Botany Bay in January 1788, but Phillip felt the soil there was too poor to support a colony. The fleet travelled on, finally arriving at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788.

Once on land, Phillip’s strict discipline and tight rationing laid the foundations for a successful settlement, though he struggled to create a viable colony with only minimal support from the British government. Phillip, however, had the foresight to see that New South Wales needed a system to emancipate convicts, supported by a sound legal system.

Arthur Phillip and Woolarawarre Bennelong

Phillip also opened a dialogue with the Eora Aboriginal people, who lived around Sydney Cove, as per the instructions he had received from King George III. A man called Woollarawarre Bennelong was captured to help teach the settlers more about the local customs, but he escaped after six months. Bennelong renewed his contact with Phillip as a free man, however.

Bennelong organised for Phillip to visit Manly, where a misunderstanding arose and Phillip was speared in the shoulder by a local Eora man. Phillip ordered his men not to retaliate, and a friendship developed between he and Bennelong, who learned to speak English.

In 1790, Phillip built him a hut on an area now known as Bennelong Point, the site of the Sydney Opera House.

The first years of British settlement

In 1790 the Second Fleet with hundreds more convicts, most of them in poor health, which put a great strain on the new colony’s already limited supplies. By the time the Third Fleet began to arrive in 1971, Phillip was forced to send supply ships to Calcutta to bring back food.

By 1792, the colony was well established, with a few trades flourishing, and the convicts whose sentences had expired learning to farm. Phillip, who was in poor health, finally received permission to return to England and set sale on 11 December 1792, taking Bennelong and his Eora friend Yemmerrawanyea along with him. Upon their departure, the population of New South Wales was 4,221 – 3,099 of whom were convicts.

Phillip arrived in London in May 1793 and resigned, never to return to New South Wales. He continued, though, to promote the colony’s interests with the British government. Bennelong remained in England for three years, returning home in 1796 where he would also advise the next governor. Governor Arthur Phillip died in Bath in 1814.